The priority of the right over the good

The priority of the right over the good
nosos
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Posted Mar 17, 2007 - 11:12 AM:
Subject: The priority of the right over the good
Can we coherently separate the right from the good? Rawls claims that the right has priority over the good: people’s right to form differing conceptions of the good must be affirmed over any one conception of the good. Liberal states must have a neutrality when it comes to differing conceptions of the good. People must be free to exercise their moral powers and come to their own conception.

Is this really neutrality? Or is it just a liberal affirmation of a liberal conception of the good: namely that a good life is one that has been freely or autonomously chosen by the person living it?
Fried Egg
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Posted Mar 19, 2007 - 6:33 AM:

It is a kind of meta-good. i.e. It is good that people should, as far as is possible, be able to decide for themselves what is good.

How can the good have priority over the right? This simply means inequal rights. Some have the right to determine what is good and others don't. They have the right to determine this, not only for themselves, but for others.

This might well come down to your conception of good. Is it a subjective or objective notion? If it is subjective, then surely the right should have priority over the good. And viseversa when it is objective.
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Posted Mar 19, 2007 - 2:24 PM:

I agree that Rawls has smuggled a liberal conception of the good into the Original Position. It seems perverse to require that people are required to make choices about the kinds of lives that they are likely to live without any knowledge of their conception of the good, or indeed the worthwhile. Surely the way that we structure our lives can only sensibly be decided in the light of that which we value.

Although I thing Rawls' theory is a real masterpiece of style, I have always had a nagging doubt that it is only those that share our conception of the good (I'm assuming that we are all fairly liberal) that would accept the conditions of the Original Position.

Such an issue is related to the question as to whether we should tolerate intolerance. If people are intolerant, who are we to say that they should not be so? Similarly, to set up the conditions of the Original Position in such a way that only those that already agree with us will agree to them seems an argument unlikely to persuade.

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Posted Mar 28, 2007 - 1:13 PM:

Perhaps this is indeed so, and Rawls conception of the Origonal position is biased toward our current position; would it be possible to describe a different Origonal Position which would be un-biased? or are we doomed to recreate our own situation in our conceptions of sociotys ideals?
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Posted Mar 29, 2007 - 2:03 PM:

The real good is right. So no, they are not separable.

Nevertheless, people insist over and over that their good is right. The only way to do this is separate good from right so they separate the inseparable. We see this all the time.

Eventually, this separation of right and good degenerates into intolerance which is not right. It is its antithesis. The argument that we must tolerate intolerance to prove right is a false argument for intolerance denies right and in so doing negates right entirely.

So, to support the right of intolerance is to take the position that right does not exist, only good, which is subjective.
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Posted Apr 3, 2007 - 8:36 PM:

"Or is it just a liberal affirmation of a liberal conception of the good: namely that a good life is one that has been freely or autonomously chosen by the person living"

From what I remember of Rawls, he argues instead that reasonable comprehensive doctrines, when confronted with pluralism, share an "overlapping consensus" that allow them all to accomodate his version of political justice. The argument is not circular in that the "reasonableness" of the comprehensive doctrines that share this overlapping consensus is not fundamentally based on their acceptance of Rawls. Rather, "reasonableness" is based on how cooperatively they confront the fact of pluralist life.

Personally, I don't think Rawls needed to show this accomodation of comprehensive doctrines. Surely, I don't think he should have focused so much effort on explaining it. He should have taken the view you mentioned- there are plenty of good arguments for the rightness of liberal thought, including its provision for toleration. These arguments hinge upon equal respect and cooperation, not upon a neutral taking of all comprehensive doctrines, which eases the tension between valuing toleration and claiming truth in your liberalism.
nosos
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Posted Apr 19, 2007 - 5:37 AM:

Fried Egg wrote:
This might well come down to your conception of good. Is it a subjective or objective notion? If it is subjective, then surely the right should have priority over the good. And viseversa when it is objective.

Does this work as a defence of the liberal principle though? The separation of the right and the good is a normative concept so even if the liberal says that “conceptions of the good therefore the state ought not to legislate in favour of any conception of the good (i.e. the right is prior to the good)” does this not implicate some concrete notion about it being a good thing for the state not to legislate in favour of any one subjective view? Differing sorts of ethical concepts are invoked but ethical concepts are invoked, leaving the assertion of the priority of the right over the good as (in effect) an underhanded way of achieving liberal hegemony over ethical discourse. It’s an indirect way of asserting that a certain set of liberal values have a special status over-and-above all non-liberal values. I like your phrase that it’s a meta-good.

This seems to be the issue at the very heart of liberalism’s ethical-philosophical framework, alongside the conception it implicates of the person as a pre-social autonomous chooser of ends i.e. a person chooses conceptions of the good, those conceptions (our ethical commitments) are not constitutive of who we are. I’ve just started reading a very interesting book by Michael Sandel called Democracy’s Discontent where he’s arguing for civic republicanism over Rawlsian/Kantian liberalism. Has anyone read much communitarian political philosophy? I’m trying to order my thoughts on it at the moment but there conflict between the two seems (fundamentally) to consist in the status accorded to conceptions of the good and the rest of the political philosophy is worked up from the respective conflicting positions.
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Posted Apr 19, 2007 - 7:54 AM:

nosos

If there is no objective way for determining what is good, what justification can there possibly be for imposing your definition onto everyone else who doesn't agree? It is not up to the liberal to justify why one persons's idea of good shouldn't be imposed. It is up to he who seeks to impose to do the justifying.

I have heard it said in the past that if person A stops person B imposing upon person A, then by doing so, person A is imposing upon person B. But I can't help thinking that even if you class both actions as an imposition, they are qualatively different from one another. i.e. the level of imposition of B on A is of a higher order than the imposition of A on B.

So, yes, saying that each person should be able to, as far as possible, be free to decide for themselves what is good, we are attempting to impose an ethical framework but one which is categorically less imposing than any other.
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Posted Apr 21, 2007 - 3:44 PM:

nosos wrote:
Can we coherently separate the right from the good? Rawls claims that the right has priority over the good: people’s right to form differing conceptions of the good must be affirmed over any one conception of the good. Liberal states must have a neutrality when it comes to differing conceptions of the good. People must be free to exercise their moral powers and come to their own conception.

Is this really neutrality? Or is it just a liberal affirmation of a liberal conception of the good: namely that a good life is one that has been freely or autonomously chosen by the person living it?


I think Rawls means something different by the priority of the right over the good. His conception of justice, unlike utilitarianism, affirms a set of basic liberties. The state may not infringe these liberties even when doing so would maximize the good. This, as I understand it, is the sense in which Rawls affirms the priority of the right over the good.

Neutrality about the good is of course also important to Rawls, and that is among the reasons why he adopts an objective measure of well-being (primary goods). But a utilitarian could adopt this metric, and this would not mean that they have given the right priority over the good.

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Posted Apr 21, 2007 - 11:09 PM:

How about using Habermas for the difference between 'right' and 'good'?

(I heard a talk on it, but am afraid I ill equipped to explain it.)
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